By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., and David S. Prescott, LISCW
The recent Jeffery Epstein legacy trials, those of Ghislaine Maxwell and the (formerly titled) Prince Andrew, have highlighted that society still does not trust victims of sexual abuse, their narratives, or their motivations.
In the Maxwell case, it turned out that one of the jurors disclosed that they were a victim of sexual abuse to corroborate the victims’ narratives and indicate that there are legitimate reasons for the complexity and seeming contradictions. However, this was seen as derailing the legal processes, mainly by the defence counsel, and the case is on track to appeal. The agreement is that this juror was a disgruntled victim looking to dispute the agenda with a personal crusade that looked to make Maxwell the unwarranted target of their fury.
In the Duke of York case, the victim-blaming narratives were two-fold. The first was that she was only looking for money and not justice (disclosing how much the victim received in an earlier settlement may also have been seen as a way to portray her as a money-grabber). This has since been countered by the prosecution, who have stated that their client will not want to settle out of court. The second victim-blaming narrative is that the woman was suffering from false memories and that the allegations are not true. The false memories argument reinforces a lot of the claims made by Andrew (i.e., that he never met her, he was elsewhere at the time, that the photo was faked, that he doesn’t sweat, etc.). The argument highlights that it’s the victim that is untrustworthy, in a way that suggests that she is confused, unreliable, and vulnerable. The false memory argument seems to suggest that the victim’s vulnerabilities have resulted in the duke becoming the target of her ire as he is a public figure, but not the actual culprit. The core of the duke’s argument is that she is targeting him because of his personal wealth and that she is out for what she can get from him. This is reinforced by the fact that she is pursuing a civil case rather than a criminal case without recognizing that there are very real and legitimate reasons for why this decision was made. These reasons include the threshold of evidence needed, the fact that the duke is not an American citizen and that the case is playing out in an American court, and the geographic location where the abuse took place. What the duke’s defence has done is paint a picture of a damaged, angry individual who is seeking money, not justice.
These examples continue to damage public perception of victims, their credibility, and their ability to seek – and receive – justice. We have seen this play out in the media and social media message boards with people claiming that “She went along with it!,” “No one forced her,” “She is getting something out of it,” “Well, the story does not make sense so it must be untrue,” and “Why has she waited this long to seek justice.” The result is that in the court of public opinion victims’ stories are undermined over and over again and that people often have good reasons for not coming forward to disclose abuse. In addition, these perceptions, victim-blaming tendencies, and cognitive distortions cannot be ruled out among professionals (police, judges, etc.), which can lead to inadequate treatment of (alleged) victims.
Therefore, what lessons can we learn from these cases, from the evidence, that we can use in moving forward? To start:
- The help-seeking process is complex, consists of different phases, is different for everyone, and requires a great deal of insight, courage, and skills on the part of the victim.
- Victims often take a long time to come forward and disclose their experiences of abuse as it takes time for them to process as well as understand it.
- Sexual abuse is complex with victims often being groomed and manipulated by the person that is abusing them, quite often to the point that they don’t see the abuse.
- The narratives of those who have been victimized can be complex and contradictory, which is a product of the abuse and human memory processes and not a sign of unreliability or manipulation.
- Those who have been victimized often want different forms of “justice” and that can appear different to all. Therefore, its unrealistic to expect everyone to want the same brand and type of justice.
- We need to recognize that false memories can and do exist (see for an interesting review, see O’Donohue et al., 2018), but it is in the minority of cases and hence must not be seen as the go-to explanation for complex victim narratives.
- We need to realize, as professionals and certainly as a (online) community, that responding adequately to disclosures is essential to the well-being of the victim, will facilitate help-seeking behaviour in the future of that victim, and will facilitate help-seeking behaviour of other victims.
As a society we need to start recognising that the narratives of those who have been victimized are not black and white, and that this means that we need to understand how to best support them as well as the Criminal Justice System in processing these cases.